Pubdate: Fri, 16 Sep 2005
Source: Boston Phoenix (MA)
Copyright: 2005 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.
Author: Mike  Millard
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


Medical Marijuana Could Become Legal In The Commonwealth

It would seem these are dark days for the medical-marijuana movement.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich that the feds 
can  prosecute patients even in states with laws allowing prescribed use -- 
a decision  that would seem to be a definitive "no" on the subject handed 
down by the  highest court in the land. White House drug czar John Walters 
even claimed the  ruling "marks the end of medical marijuana as a political 
issue." Not so. "The Raich decision really wasn't a setback in legal terms, 
it  just preserved the status quo," says Krissy Oechslin, assistant 
director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Federal law 
remains the same.  The decision did not overturn state laws, and it didn't 
prevent other states  from passing laws. It also didn't prevent Congress 
from changing federal  law." So, even in the wake of the Raich ruling, we 
see Rhode Island, our  plucky neighbor to the south, poised to join Maine, 
Vermont, and eight other  states in passing its own medical-marijuana law. 
(See "Rhode Trip," News and  Features, July 8.) The state senate overrode 
Governor Donald Carcieri's veto in  June, and the House of Representatives 
is expected to gather for a series of override votes by the end of the 
year, and may well have the majority they'll  need. But what about 
Massachusetts, ostensibly the bluest of the blue states?  Where's our 
medical-marijuana law? In fact, there is legislation on the books that was 
signed into law by then-governor William Weld in the 1990s. But the law 
requires that the marijuana in any state-sponsored program be supplied by 
the feds. Unsurprisingly, they've not provided any, so medical marijuana is 
effectively illegal in the Commonwealth.

That may be changing.

In 2004, there were five non-binding medical marijuana initiatives on 
ballots across Massachusetts, and all of them passed by at least 
two-to-one. So public  opinion is there.

The medical community is on board, too. "I sent out a letter  asking for 
physicians to sign saying that they support the medical use of marijuana, 
and over 1000 physicians signed it," says Representative Frank 
Smizik  (D-Brookline), who has submitted a bill before the House Committee 
on Public  Health that would amend the current law. Still, he says, "I 
don't see real  movement in Massachusetts. There's some action in other 
states that's not  happening here."

In part, that can be ascribed to the chilling effect the Raich case has had 
on legislators. Even though the decision doesn't proscribe the passing  of 
state laws, says Smizik, "it still makes it very difficult to pass a law in 
Massachusetts." Lawmakers are too willing to use it as an excuse for their 
own reluctance to sign on to legislation. Smizikas bill, HB 2742, which 
would amend current law by allowing patients certified by the Department of 
Public Health to procure their own marijuana, hasn't yet been heard before 
committee. "But I'm  sure they're going to be reluctant to move forward 
with that decision out  there."

Perhaps a more basic approach, one that steers clear of the entanglements 
of state bureaucracy, stands a better chance of success.

Another bill, SB 998, sponsored by Senator Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), would 
simply give a prima facie defense to patients, doctors, or caregivers who 
possess or prescribe marijuana. "I'm optimistic about 998," says Whitney 
Taylor, executive director of the Drug  Policy Forum of Massachusetts, 
who's lobbied for the bill. "It doesn't cost any  money, it will actually 
probably end up saving money.

It's not a big system. The  state doesn't have to get involved with 
distribution issues and regulation  issues, which I think can always be a 
stumbling block." Even if neither of these bills ends up signed into law, 
the committee restructuring implemented earlier this year on Beacon Hill 
may bode well for  future proposals. "Our medical-marijuana bills had 
always gone through the criminal-justice committees; this year it's being 
routed through the health committee," says Bill Downing, director of MASS 
CANN/NORML. "So that, for us is  a big change. It means some of the 
[legislators] we had trouble with, who had stalled our bills, we're bypassing."

Then, of course, there.s the issue of whether or not Governor Mitt Romney 
would ever sign a marijuana bill into law. Asked about the chances for his 
own bill, should it ever get that far, Representative Smizik just chuckles. 
"I think  he.d probably veto it." But one never knows.

A call to Romney spokesmen for  comment went unreturned, but the governor 
has said things in the past that indicate he's not as opposed to the issue 
as one might expect a Mormon, conservative Republican to be. At a White 
House Office of National Drug Control Policy summit in Boston in 2003, he 
wondered aloud why medical marijuana  couldn't be treated like any other 
potential pharmaceutical: "Would it not be appropriate to subject marijuana 
to this same [drug-testing] process?" Funny he should ask.

A "No-Brainer"

  Massachusetts is at the center of a fight for marijuana testing -- a 
battle that's arguably the most important front in the war since Gonzales 
v.  Raich.  Dr. Lyle Craker, a professor of plant and soil sciences at 
UMass  Amherst, wants a license to grow research-grade marijuana for Food 
and Drug  Administration (FDA) "approved studies" and, potentially, future 
prescription as an FDA-approved drug. (See "The Right To Grow," News and 
Features, August 26.)  This would supplant the poor-quality stuff 
dispensed, stingily, by the feds from  the single crop maintained by the 
National Institute on Drug Abuse in Mississippi. But the Drug Enforcement 
Administration (DEA), after three years of stonewalling, denied his 
application. So, with the help of the ACLU and Belmont-based 
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research, Craker is suing the 
DEA. Hearings before an administrative-law judge took place in August,  and 
more are scheduled for this month, but victory is far from assured. 
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Representative Barney Frank's States' Rights to 
Medical Marijuana Act, which would reschedule the drug so that states with 
medical-marijuana laws can escape federal interference, was introduced 
before the House and referred to the Subcommittee on Health in May. But the 
bill has been introduced many times before, and has always been voted down; 
there's little reason to believe things will be different this time. So 
it's up to the state to make it so.

"I think if we continue our present strategy, eventually [opposition] will 
just become ridiculous," says Downing. "Our present strategy is to run 
these public-policy questions in every election cycle, in as many 
legislative districts as we possibly can. One by one, the legislators who 
represent those districts are being told by their constituents, "This is 
what we want."  Two-to-one. So it becomes very difficult for those 
legislators to either not  lend their support or actually oppose 
medical-marijuana legislative  opportunities." Whitney Taylor, for one, 
thinks the issue may be reaching a tipping point. "We've already had 
discussions on Beacon Hill that never would have happened in the last 10 
years," she says. "There's actually a willingness to learn.

The public is there.

The science is there.

To me, this should be a no-brainer."
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